Before the suburban boom, Jews on Long Island operated small shops, worked on farms and in factories, and built the foundation for what would later be the nation’s largest suburban Jewish population. Last week, Plainview resident Brad Kolodny released his new book, The Jews of Long Island: 1705-1918, which documents the history of the first Jewish settlers on Long Island.
“Instead of the buildings, this book is about how people built their communities,” Kolodny said. “Economically, it was a wide range of merchants, store owners, and immigrants earning a living.”
The book follows up on the success of his first work, Seeking Sanctuary: 125 Years of Synagogues on Long Island, a 128-page coffee-table book published in 2019.
Having founded the Jewish Historical Society of Long Island, Kolodny spent six years collecting artifacts, photos, newspaper articles, and commemorative journals that preserve the history of Long Island’s earliest Jews. Among the surprises is the island’s first shul, which was very far from New York City.
“It was in Setauket, where a rubber factory offered jobs and company housing. With over 500 employees, it was the largest company in Suffolk County,” Kolodny said. “The Agudas Achim synagogue was built in 1896, but the rubber factory had a history of fires and it closed for good. By the time of World War I, it disbanded.”
The small wooden structure later became a Methodist church, but last year it received a historical marker that notes its Jewish history. “The synagogue had a women’s balcony; it was a traditional congregation,” he said.
The book is divided into three parts: an introduction that is followed with examples of the earliest Jews, a section on Nassau County, and a section on Suffolk County. “The first congregation on Long Island was founded in 1875. Those who arrived before then came on their own and helped the towns grow,” he said.
The first documented Jew to live on Long Island was merchant Nathan Simson, who may have owned a shop in Brookhaven in 1705 and later served as president of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, the nation’s oldest congregation. Like their city counterparts, these early settlers supported the American Revolution, temporarily fleeing to Connecticut to avoid living under the British occupation. Among them was Oyster Bay resident Solomon Simson, the son of Nathan’s nephew Joseph. During that war, he supplied lead and a cannon to the state’s militia.
Kolodny said that there was little anti-Semitism in rural Long Island as it had a frontier feel, where many people were newcomers and they welcomed merchants bringing goods from the city. With enough capital, merchants opened small shops, which grew into department stores, a trend that evoked the German Jewish experience of the mid-19th century. After 1880, the massive wave of Russian Jews arrived in New York, taking jobs in factories such as the one in Setauket.
As is the case throughout history, even when there were few Jews, they were very visible in public life as volunteers in small-town fire companies, officers in fraternal societies, and as players in sports leagues. Among them was Babylon’s Leo Fischel, who rose to play for the Giants baseball team on May 3, 1899. He was a Columbia University student, and his team lost on that day. He returned to his studies and became a lawyer. His story would have remained an asterisk as the first Jew to pitch in the major leagues, but fortunately Kolodny has a photo of Fischel in uniform, courtesy of his descendant Fred Fischel.
“The Jewish Historical Society of Long Island has grown out of my collection. Speaking to descendants of pioneers, there is a need for a three-dimensional story. I hope to be able to secure the space,” Kolodny said. “When I founded this historical society, I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done it?’ Northern New Jersey has one and so does Fairfield County.”
A rich history can only be limited by printing limitations, such as the number of pages, how many illustrations to include, and the cost of publishing. That’s why this book’s story ends in 1918.
“The cover was provided to me by the Babylon Town Historian. It is a wedding from 1916, but there were no names on it. I was able to identify them as Dr. Solomon Weingrad and Ruth Esther Siegel in front of the Lindenhurst Hebrew Congregation.”
Kolodny said that the decade that followed Dr. Weingrad’s wedding changed the social landscape of Long Island with its first tract housing developments, the boom in Gold Coast mansions owned by wealthy Jews, and the rise in xenophobia that accompanied restrictions on immigration. A quarter century later, after World War II, Long Island experienced its iconic suburban boom, with modernist temple complexes, schools, and summer camps. A wealth of information certainly accompanies these subsequent periods. For now, with the pandemic receding, Kolodny’s social calendar is filling up again with lectures across Long Island on its Jewish past.
As Kolodny describes in his new book, “It is about the seeds that were planted, giving rise to Judaism on Long Island that exists today.”
By Sergey Kadinsky